Sunday, 24 January 2016

This Fantastic Voyage: Or, How I Ran David Bowie Themed RPG Sessions

One of the first CDs I ever bought with my own money. Possibly the first, actually, I can't quite remember.

The big cultural event of Januarywas the passing of David Bowie, something I doubt you missed.  Social media can already be a bit of an echo chamber for major news stories – every celebrity that dies suddenly prompts all your friends list to talk about how it’s a punch to the gut, they were close to tears, good night sweet prince etc.  Then again, it doesn’t even take major news stories – the slightest drop of snow in Glasgow (which is not a rare event in January) and Facebook is on fire.

Which is kinda ironic, really.  You see, snow and fire and…. Oh never mind.

Still, this one is perhaps a bit different because the big boy news dedicated large chunks of coverage to him.  He meant different things to different generations, producing albums and singles in the 60s right through until the end of his life.  He was a big inspiration to a bunch of other media types – it’s hard to imagine how you’d end up with Marilyn Manson or Lady Gaga without Ziggy Stardust.

Amongst my generation and in particular the geeks & goths of my generation, he is perhaps remembered less for his 60s/70s musical achievements and more for his acting.  I’m not sure he himself regarded these performances very well but for people of my age he is associated with several odd turns in genre cinema.  My Facebook was a sea of picture of Jareth the Goblin King from Labyrinth, a cult classic movie which as a child I insisted we rent from the video store many times, while the more hardened mistresses of darkness were posting his turn as a vampire from the super-sexy The Hunger.  You might even get people reminding you that he also managed to fit Pontius Pilate, Nikolai Tesla and a drug-addled alien into his repertoire, though they seemed rather thin on the ground – seriously, people, has no-one here seen The Last Temptation of Jesus Christ?

"We'd have probably done the same to you, if you'd come 'round our place. "

You will have seen a thousand tributes to this man in the last week, many of which will have been repetitive in the extreme.  I will therefore will be posting something of a rather different flavour.  A long and meandering story, true, but not one you’re likely to have heard anyone else tell you.

This is the story of how David Bowie inspired my roleplaying and how I managed to run not one but two adventures inspired by his music.

Sister Superior mostly has no interest in weddings... but if she was gonna get married, apparently she'd wear Sarah's dress.

To begin this story, we should say I’m not a huge music fan.  Some people are hugely enamored with bands or genres as teenagers and go on to define a chunk of their personality through their love of metal, dance, punk, rap or whatever.  I didn’t buy my first albums until I was in my last year or two of school and had it not been for the Napster era there’s a whole bunch of performers I would never have investigated.  The two most noteworthy examples would be Pink Floyd and David Bowie.

As a student at Glasgow University I finally got a chance to play in and run “real” role-playing games sessions and campaigns.  My first attempt at running a D&D campaign took place here – a 3.0 campaign that played up to about level 8 or so.  It was, inevitably, a disaster in the way that only a first campaign can be – a failure for players and GMs to communicate their interests well with each other, power-gaming and dice-cheating nerds desperately trying to have the biggest nerd-penis at the table, real-life drama between group members seeing the nicer people leave, poor 3.0 rules systems offering easy exploitation and lots of other stereotypical young-men-playing-D&D woes.  It was a vital learning experience, however.

Tell Me Is Something Eluding You Sunshine?  Is This Not What You Expected To See?

One idea that was on my “to do” list for this campaign – before it crashed and burned when I decided it just wasn’t worth the effort to salvage it anymore – was to run a session inspired vaguely by a band.  I thought I could run a session inspired by Pink Floyd’s The Wall, in particular commencing the plot in media res at the back half of the plot the way the album begins with In The Flesh?: we’d then jump back to the start of the story, with the players crossing a frozen lake – The Thin Ice, track two of the album – and go from there.  It was one of those ideas that had a gem of something interesting to it but was not fit for human consumption just yet and if I couldn’t even run a simple dungeon-crawl for those guys without wanting to commit seppuku I don’t know how I thought this magnum opus of pretentiousness was going to work.

Flash forward a few years and I’m running my Phratil campaign, my long running D&D 3.x campaign.  I originally had low opinions about this game since most campaigns I’d either played or ran in had died within a few weeks and certainly never lasted more than a few months.  However this game had managed to run for over half a year pretty regularly and things seemed to be going well.  There was definitely an interest in continuing past my initial “remove the curse” quest and though I had a plot-arc ready in the form of a cult summoning a demon princess, I wanted to flesh out the world a bit.  It was then that the idea of a musician-related story bubbled into my head and this time it was not Pink Floyd but David Bowie that came to mind.

I imagine you've seen a lot of this face the last week

For a good year or so, a plot hook bubbling in the background of the campaign world was a slave rebellion in the city of Stardust.  Knowing this is a David Bowie connected probably helps you see where this might be going but it’s important to note at this stage the players did not comment on this and just thought it was a daft fantasy world name.

A city-state with touches of apartheid-meets-misogyny, Stardust was a highly patriarchal society verging on Straw Patriarchy in the otherwise weird medieval-except-when-it-isn’t cultural mish-mash that D&D settings tend to be.  A mystery cult, worshipping a Dwarven deity of liberation of oppressors, had turned into a militant body and was engaging in terrorist activities to win liberation.  They wanted to make it a Suffragette City, in other words.  (Oh, I think I’m such a card, don’t I?)

Truer words have never been spoken.

They mostly turned up as a news story or tavern rumour, lurid tales of government officials lynched in the streets and brutal executions of captured terrorists to sell the idea that things happened in Phratil which were not all about the player characters.  Any suggestions the players get involved was soundly ignored – this wasn’t adventure but politics, something they wanted nothing to do with – especially as religiously-inspired terrorists do not sound like people who can be easily negotiated with if things go wrong.

However get involved they eventually did, after two years (!) had passed in real life.  No longer random adventuring murderhobos but being recognized heroes with military connections, they found themselves requested by Phratil top brass to survey the situation at Stardust now that it was threatening to destabilize the region.  The women had now taken effective control of the city and the male oligarchy were orchestrating a siege - in a World War I style situation, the Phratil Army was being pulled into the combat by treaties and was worried things could escalate.  The group headed their way to the city… and before the gates they found themselves watching a rock fall from the sky and out of it emerged an angel.
Some D&D 3rd Edition angel art.

The angel bears more than a passing resemblance to the classic Aladdin Sane image of androgynous figure with red hair and lightning bolt motif.  She claims to be called Zhi'Chei Lightkiss, Matriarch Of Illustrious Motion and that she's been sent by a goddess who represents all womankind - a god known variously as Hera, Juno, Deae Matres, Mut, Parvati...  (I'd actually forgotten one of the examples we used was Parvati, since in later years this goddess would become relevant in another of my RPGs as the name of a computer system the Indian superhero Steel Shiva uses.)  In true player character style they couldn't remember her full name or even how her first name was pronounced, so "Zih-Kai" very quickly became "Zih-gee".

Well, that's not intentional at all...

I like to imagine I'm like this.
The angel comes because the city of Stardust is in peril.  The rebels believe they are worshipping Denarri and her belief of a strange gynaearchy belief system called Aristasia.  (Which is an actual real-world belief system with some weird lesbian BDSM themes)  This odd belief system has given them the force of will to rebel and seize their land.  It is, however, a fraud - an artificially constructed cult used to further someone else's agenda.

For someone else is watching this chaotic situation: someone who wishes to profit from it...

The differeing forms of Neogi: little scampering babies, mature adults and over-sized breeders.

Rescued from the C-List "other intelligent races" pile came the Neogi, a race of arachnid-like slave takers.  In the chaos and confusion they planned to capture a whole wad of humans - having escaped slavery from one yoke, they thought the shock of realising they'd been played and walked into another form of slavery would break their spirit completely.  Before anyone could realise what had happened, they'd be far away.

Landing in their flying ship, the Ares, (the Greek equivalent of Mars, of course) the Neogi managed to score a PC kill with their highly trained force.  It was a classic D&D 3.5 sort of battle, in that it took an age to stat them up and to fight it out but wasn't actually all that interesting to play - but making a player explode by lightning bolt is always going to be remembered and the visceral reaction some people have to spiders means that even now, when Sister Superior saw me writing this post and the picture above, she knew who they were.

But that wasn't what the guys and girls of Phratil remember most.  What they remember is the Neogi appearing, the session ending, and me informing them that "Next Time on Dungeons and Dragons: Zhi'Chei, Stardust and the Spiders from Mars."

One of the worst puns I ever spent so long building up to

The groaning went around the table pretty quickly - except for Joanna who, I recall, didn't recognise the reference straight away. On reflection, that did explain why all the chapter headings on the wiki summaries of the session were David Bowie songs including some fairly obvious ones like Ashes to Ashes and The Man Who Sold The World!  The story continued but the realisiation that I'd spent two years building up to a joke that lame was something that had to be admired and despised in equal measure.

Despite everything, this session ended up being surprisingly important for the campaign.  The Ares was blown up and then salvaged - this curious spider-shaped flying vessel contained a component that would allow players to explore the weird geocentric space that floated around them and adventure in the style of AD&D supplement Spelljammer.  I had worried this might be a bit too bonkers for the players - especially when you have two doctors of physics in your group, will they accept planets in crystal spheres? - but they actually leapt on it and renovated their own sea vessel to allow them explore PhratilSphere.

Deathspider-class ship.  We described these ships as having legs that could fold upwards when they needed to land.
That wasn't the last appearance of the Spiders from Mars, however.  Two years later when the campaign was drawing to an end, I ran a second adventure with a David Bowie inspired title and motif.  While exploring the stars in search of a magic item to prevent an apocalypse, the Party bumped into a trifecta of Neogi ships.  These three craft - the Diamond Dog, the Tin Machine and the Moonage Daydream - are commanded by the spider-admiral Krk'Dak'Tr and it looks like a straight forwarded combat up until it turns out they are also in possession of a giant Death Star like ship called the World Flayer

The adventure's name?  Loving the Alien.  It was pretty cool, and though the game was almost at it's natural end I still couldn't resist putting in a sequel hook in.  The World Flayer is possibly one of the better ideas I've ever come up, a huge vessel shaped like a Mind Flayer's head and whose power wasn't to destroy planets but to terraform... well,  illithform them. It spat out the contents of a tank of Mind Flayer tadpoles and could impregnate an entire ecosphere with it's rival DNA.

So, imagine that's not the face of a human-sized Mind Flayer but a rocky lump in space the size of a small moon.
So yeah, David Bowie isn't just a musician to me but also a roleplaying game inspiration.  Inspiration can some from strange places - over the years I've ran D&D adventures based on ideas from Doctor Who, DC Comics, Marvel Comics... OK a lot of comic books on reflection, but I'd argue high level D&D has more in common with Fantastic Four or Justice League than it does with The Lord of the Rings or Conan.

That said, not many people can run an adventure based on both X-Men and Kylie Minogue...

I could have picked another picture but... well.... look, this performance is awesome, OK?

The Impossible Princess managed to blend Kylie lyrics and tenuous jokes (like the title - a Kylie Minogue song lyric and album title - being used to describe the main NPC) with the plot of a New X-Men comic by Grant Morrison.  The party met a woman who apparently came from the sky. A'Dastra claims to be form a distance sphere and that she is a juvenile star - her head is a star and one day she'll mature into a true star.

This sounds bonkers, but it's very similar to the plot of Xorn from X-Men.  Those of you know Xorn will also know the character has a secret - something very similar happened here.  Because of different reference pools the players thought this character was instead an expy of a character from a Neil Gaiman novel and perhaps handled her differently than they should have.  After all, she is in and out of character called The Impossible Princess...

"Impossible is eating the sun"

Anyway, David Bowie is still in my RPG thoughts.  There's a game I'd had on my to-run list for ages and that's Starchildren: Velvet Generation.  An obscure game I found buried in a pile in Edinburgh's Black Lion Games, the game is best imagined as one in which Ziggy Stardust arrives in Oceania of 1984.  Aliens who detected 60s and 70s music as radio waves had a huge cultural renaissance by the shocking ideas of Earth and set out on a pilgrimage to the home of rock.

When they arrive, however, large chunks of Earth has been gripped by a fascist government that oppresses free speech and in particular tries to control art.  The Ministry of Music patrol the streets, busting illegal guitarists and ensuring only state-approved insipid music can be played.

The androgynous, glam-rock-raised Starchildren can't stand for this and so they set out to help the freedom fighters.  The game then turns into some sort of weird variant of Star Wars in which fighting for the rebellion means shooting guns but also cracking out amazing guitar solos.

They'd like to come and roll us, but they think they'll blow our dice

I've been a little unsure of quite what to do with the game.  Part of that is the rules, an odd system using playing cards which feels a bit underwhelming - I've read it several times but it's never really impressed.  I dunno if porting it to something else would work better - I could see a Primetime Adventures campaign along this theme for the indie fans, while a more trad game could work around Mutants & Masterminds or GURPS.

There's also the "what do we do?" issue.  There's some cool world ideas but I'm a little bamboozled as to what session one looks like, let alone a full campaign.   Some games its obvious after you read them what you would go and do - for all their faults, no-one finishes their first D&D book and fails to imagine what a dungeon crawl would look like.  Some games, though, present wonderful situations without any real hint as to how they become gamable.

This is a variant of the problem I always have with White Wolf games - I find Vampire: The Requiem or Demon the Fallen interesting but I never feel the game's core rules makes it clear to me what I'm supposed to do.  The best option I have is to immerse myself in appropriate media and hope for the best - and while they have other failings the games usually do provide some good source material suggestions, taking us back to David Bowie again.

More so than even that Kylie video above, you need this undead undead undead film in your life.  It's sexy as fuck
Still, I have tried making up a few characters with the listed game system and after years of procrastinating I might let David Bowie's death be the inspiration to finally play this game.  I've statted up six sample characters including a goth keyboardist, a punk drummer, a folk guitarist and a Starchild singer.  Knowing something of the interests of the group, I made sure one of my two Starchildren PCs was a woman because I strongly suspect Sister Superior will be all over getting to play a glam rock alien.  (Though she might be less Ziggy and more OmÄ“ga)

Alt!Model Kato, aka Kate Lambert. I  think she's got a bit of a Lady Starchild sort of look going on, don't you?
To close out, here is a one hour video that was on telly back in 2000.  This is the live performance of David Bowie which as a young man I enjoyed so much I went out and bought the CD thereof and in doing so discovered his back catalogue.  He plays everything from then-recent songs like Seven to some more obscure choices like Wild Is The Wind and This Is Not America.  You could do worse things with an hour of your life than watch this.

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